Thoughts on the Christmas Music Market

fairytale of new york

It’s the festive season again, which I don’t need to tell anyone unless you’ve been living under a rock or using a Mayan calendar to track the days in 2021. As soon as December starts, we’re all inundated with festive cheer, and we start to hear those oh-so familiar chimes, chords and the sweet, sweet vocal runs of Miss Mariah Carey. As an eternal lover of Christmas songs (no, you were listening to Nat King Cole in July) and advocate for festive bops on the office radio, I’ve been thinking about what makes our list of Christmas classics so classic! It feels like we’ve not had a new entry into the Christmas canon in quite some time, so I did a little bit of sniffing around and this is what I found…

The biggest festive bangers in the country

First things first, a recent study found that Fairytale of New York is the UK’s favourite Christmas song, with 17% of us (your present author included) listing it as our most loved festive tune. Second place goes to the inventor of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey and All I Want for Chrismas is you, with George Michael and Wham! coming in third place with Last Christmas.

wham george michael last christmas video

Because nothing says Christmas like perfectly fluffed hair…

The rest of the UK’s top 10 looks like this, with a couple of classic carols also breaking in alongside old-school hits from the crooners and more modern Spotify playlist classics:

  1. White Christmas – Bing Crosby (more on this one later!)
  2. Merry Christmas Everybody – Slade
  3. Silent Night
  4. Driving Home for Christmas – Chris Rea
  5. I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day – Wizzard
  6. O Holy Night
  7. I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake

Whether or not your favourite makes this list, you’ll almost certainly know all of these songs – after all, they play year in, year out, and while you might get a new Christmas song entering the roster once in a blue moon, you’ll almost never have a Christmas song fall out of favour, no matter how…. “of its time” it might be – looking at you Band Aid 👀

Why is it so hard to make a new Christmas song?

Prior to the 1940s, the vast majority of Christmas music was your classic Christmas carols, and the music industry ran hugely on sales of sheet music as a result. In the 1930s and 40s however, recorded music became more popular and more accessible! However, it was deemed pretty silly by record labels to release Christmas songs that only had potential for profit for a very short period of time. That all changed in 1942 however, with Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and White Christmas!

This was the song that kickstarted the Christmas music market as we know it today! White Christmas was a film that came out in the US only a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, when many young men were away from their families and missing home and the safety and nostalgia of the “all-American Christmas”. White Christmas was the perfect antidote to this, and both the film and the song were immensely popular with overseas troops, as well as back on US soil. Record companies almost instantly realised the power of that nostalgia and desire for home, and how that translates into record sales – nearly 80 years later, White Christmas is still the bestselling physical record of all time, and as of 2019 had 1.8 billion streams!

christmas poster in world war 2

In the years following the release of White Christmas, the catalogue of festive songs we know and love began to grow – in 1943, Bing Crosby was at it again with I’ll Be Home for Christmas, in 1944 Judy Garland’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas came out and in 1946 we heard Nat King Cole crooning The Christmas Song for the first time. In a study of the 30 most-played Christmas songs from 2014 (so 70 years later!), almost two-thirds of the songs were still those written in the 1940s or 50s, which just goes to show how enduring these tunes are for us.

Maybe one of the reasons those songs are so enduring is because they’ve been reinvented so much. After all, every one of those classic songs have been covered thousands of times! But of course, there’s a MASSIVE amount of nostalgia attached to every one of these songs, and the longer they’ve been around, the more likely you are to be familiar with them! If a golden oldie played every year at your grandparent’s house as a child, chances are you’ll continue to associate that song with those childhood memories, and you’ll play them yourself even well into adulthood! 

There are still several newer introductions to the festive songbook, most notably from the 70s and 80s, like the nation’s favourite (Fairytale of New York), the enduring and problematic Do They Know It’s Christmas? and Last Christmas. My theory is that, like the 80s music and style resurgence we saw a few years ago, the 90s style era we’ve been living in for at least half a decade now, and the Y2K resurgence that is just beginning to rear its head; fashion, art, home decor and music all move cyclically. Just like the OG festive bangers, if a Christmas song came out when your parents were young, chances are they’ll have played it for you every year growing up, and so the nostalgia grows! So if you hit shuffle on a Christmas playlist in December 2051, I reckon you’re very likely to hear Britney, Ariana and Beiber hailed as the new “traditional” picks

But when is it okay to start playing festive songs?

Whether you’re a normal, joy-loving person or a filthy Scrooge, we all have an opinion on when is appropriate for whipping out the first Christmas song of the year. In ye olden days, it was considered bad luck for the year to come to sing carols outside of the Christmas season, but today it seems that all bets are off so the sky probably won’t fall down if you want to blast Wham! in October.

carol singers

Another study found that despite it being potentially the most “logical” day to start on festive tunes, December 1st isn’t actually the most popular. Just over a quarter of people said that November 1st is the right day to kick things off, but the majority thought that the best time was at the end of November, just after Thanksgiving in the US. Me? I’m a November 1st kind of girl, and I don’t want to hear any complaining when I get my Christmas playlist on…

In conclusion, love em or loathe em, Christmas songs are here to stay so buckle up, you’re only going to hear more of them, this year and the next and the next and the next and the next…